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Pep & Prompt #3: How Do I Show, Not Tell?

How Do I Show Not Tell?

Here’s the problem with ye olde classic writing advice ‘Show, Don’t Tell‘: sometimes you have to tell things.

In fact, all of storytelling is telling. The clue is in the name.

So, what does Show, Don’t Tell even mean?

The point of telling stories is to make people feel things. And you make people feel things by helping them to experience it, by making them empathise and understand. I can tell you that I’m sad, and you’ll understand on a superficial level what that means, or I can show you what that sadness does to me, in which case you are drawn deeper into the story of my sadness. (I’m not really sad btw. I’m sitting on my bed writing and periodically looking out the window at the people walking by on the street below – FUCKING LUSH.)

In other words, you can give a reader a fish, or show them how to use the fishing rod.

You can give a reader a giant drooling werebeast that wants to eat their face, or show them how to spot the danger signs of a giant drooling werebeast that wants to eat their face.

There is, of course, a balance to be found between the two poles of this writerly nugget. Sometimes you gotta tell, sometimes you gotta show.

Years ago, I took Show, Don’t Tell so seriously that I tried to write an entire novel without actually explaining the basic premise in any clear way. If I remember correctly, someone was dying and it was all very tragic, but at no point did I ever tell the reader that. I tried to do it all in knowing looks and sideways glances, in metaphor and suggestion. One of my beta readers became so frustrated she threw her hands up and demanded: “but why can’t we know what’s going on?”

Suffice to say, that book landed squarely in the ABANDONED PROJECT pile.

So what is the balance? C’monnn you know writing rules and ratios aren’t a thing. But…

Generally speaking, but not always, you tell when you have some explaining to do. What’s actually going on in this story? What’s the action?

Generally speaking, but not always, you show when there’s a reaction.

When you tell, get in, get out, move on. Sharp. Succinct.

It was 2pm on a Tuesday and Jack was having a terrible time. The cat had vomited on his shoes. He spilled his cup of tea. And the doctor just told him the cancer had returned.

When you show, you can linger a bit longer, get deeper into the character’s psyche.

Jack was angry. He couldn’t believe this was happening to him. It was so unfair. Nothing seemed real.

Versus

Jack rubs his hands together, clammy palm sticking to clammy palm. He looks down at the vomit stain on his shoes and thinks how much he hates that stupid cat. The strip lights, the early afternoon sun. All so bright. He can’t see the doctor properly, can barely hear him. The hum from the strip lights seems to spread, flowing down the walls and creeping along the floor, making his chair vibrate, making everything resonate with a high whine until the room distorts, a sharp jolt to the side, and he is watching himself from above, but still from within. He has not moved. Time swarms, tangible and loud. He wants to reach out and grab a handful of it. Squash it in his fist, press it between sheets of tissue in a thick hardback book. His breath rises and falls. He looks out the window, the jagged grey blur of the city outside, urgent, bright, alive.

So you see. Wait, what? You want more rules of showing not telling? FINE WE’LL GIVE YOU RULES but also remember that these are entirely arbitrary and mostly you just need use your natural writerly instinct to feel if something is working or not. Anyways, here are some vague rules that you may or may not want to use:

  1. DELETE ALL EMOTIONS. Plus, anything that requires the word ‘felt’ or ‘feel’ to prefix it. Definitely never tell us how someone feels. Show us what happens when they feel that.
  2. GIVE US JUST ENOUGH. But not too much. Tell us someone is revolted by animal products. Show us their reaction at the butchers. You don’t then need to tell us outright they’ve turned vegetarian. We get it.
  3. BE PATHETIC: We’re all about the pathetic fallacy at WHQ. Feeling sad? OH LOOK IT’S RAINING. Something sinister happening? CHECK OUT THE FLICKERING LIGHTS. A joyous moments? AREN’T THE FLOWERS LOOKING BEAUTIFUL. Use your environment to inform your story for some wonderful narrative moments.
  4. ACTION REACTION. All stories are made up of these basic units repeated over and over – there’s some action, there’s a reaction, there’s another action, there’s another reaction. Tell us the action. Show us the reaction.
  5. PUKE IT ALL ONTO THE PAGE FIRST. Then worry about the detail in the edits. Don’t let perfectionism and rules stop you getting the first draft down.
  6. DON’T BE A JUDGEMENTAL PRICK (in life and in fiction). Even though this is your world and your story, it’s not for you to judge your characters. Keep your stinking authorial voice out. Do not tell us what you think. Give the clues, point the directions, accept that the reader might decide differently to you.

Ready to write? Here’s your prompt

Set your timer for 30 minutes. Take the blarp below and turn it into a showing not telling extravaganza. Feel free to add to it, grow it, expand it, explode it, bin it and start again with something else, or blow your nose on it. This paragraph is now yours to do whatever you see fit with (as long as you’re showing not telling).

Julian arrived home after a long day at work. He was tired and grumpy. His clients had been irritating him with their constant needs and demands. Just because he was a therapist, didn’t mean he had all the answers. In fact, right now he felt like he didn’t have any. As he walked up the path to his front door, he discovered the original Victorian stained glass in his front door was shattered across the hallway. He had just paid handsomely to have it restored and he was angry that it was now broken. As he looked more closely at the scene, he saw drops of blood mixed with the glass fragments on the floor. With tired resignation, he pulled out his phone to call the police, but his battery was dead.

How did you get on? Did you discover new ways of demonstrating Julian’s emotions without smacking us in the face with them? Did you add in some intriguing clues to Julian’s character and perhaps backstory? Did you focus on action and reaction?

Keep practising! In fact, this is a great way to turn your story/scene notes into an actual piece of writing. Set out the ‘telling’ details first, then go back and turn it into a showy masterpiece…

Sarah Lewis

Sarah Lewis

Sarah is one half of Writers' HQ. She writes a lot of short bios about herself.

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